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Using Technology to Create Mentor-based, Peer-to-Peer Writing Communities
Using Technology to Create Mentor-based, Peer-to-Peer Writing Communities

Self-efficacy based on substantive, academic outcomes is created when students learn to peer coach and mentor one another.

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Written by essaypop
Updated over a week ago

The Importance of student-centered, peer-to-peer feedback

The essaypop system is not only a research-based and fundamentally sound writing methodology, it also is a social and interactive environment where students can have meaningful, real-time discussions about their own academic writing. As we continue to improve the platform, we consistently direct our designers and engineers to discover new ways to drive student interaction and improve the capabilities for providing peer-to-peer feedback. Enhancing organic collaboration is a key priority at essaypop.

The problem is that when students are asked to give other students feedback, they are often left to their own devices, and this results in commentary that often devolves into surface-level informality. We must focus on creating systematic ways to train and incentivize kids to provide one another with substantive feedback rooted in academic language. The essaypop Hive is the central engine for this interactive process. Remember, research shows that students who can provide substantive commentary to others strengthen their own metacognitive skills and become better writers themselves. Additionally, a strong social and emotional dynamic is created when students are empowered to coach and mentor one another; relationships based on strong academic outcomes are forged. Incidentally, high-functioning mentorship communities managed by effective educators become defacto tutoring environments where assistance is essentially crowdsourced.

How essaypop's Hive environment works

While students compose their writing (paragraphs, essays, personal narratives, stories, etc...) in the essaypop writing frames, they can, at any time, jump into the Hive to read the writing of other students, provided the teacher has set the activity up this way.

Students can be clustered by the teacher into randomized or customized groups where they interact much in the same way they might do so when their desks are placed together in the classroom. In the screenshot here, we see the teacher's view of one class within the Hive. This is where the teacher monitors and assesses student work and where they set up clusters or groups. The student view is identical to the teacher's except they are not able to set up groups. Students are only able to interact with their peers within their cluster. Of course, the cluster walls may be removed altogether for whole-group or even multi-class interactivity.

When a student's avatar is clicked, the writing is immediately seen in real-time (you will see words appear as the student is typing). Feedback and commentary can be left by the teacher and peers in real-time, and these messages appear in the sidebar area as seen here.

Notice how anyone can click on any element (the hook, the thesis, etc...) and leave specific, pinpointed feedback on any of these elements. General feedback for the whole essay can be left as well. In the example below, we have a seventh-grade writer receiving feedback from classmates as well as a few 10th-grade guests (more on guests in the Hive later).

Real-time, peer-to-peer interaction is engaging and fun for students; the ultimate "gamification" if you will. Interest in the task and productivity are created as kids are drawn into a robust conversation about their writing. We have found that students react more attentively and positively to feedback from their peers than they do even from their teachers.

To see students discuss their experiences in the Hive, Check out this video.

To learn more about the Hive, check out this video.

Essaypop scaffolds the feedback process for students.

Feedback Templates

We can't expect all students to jump into the Hive prepared to give high-level, substantive feedback. Left to their own devices, students will write things like "Great job!" and "Keep going!", which are encouraging, but not always actionable. So we've set up a comprehensive support system for them. It begins with an auto-commentary menu that provides students with feedback stems and phrases that allow them to begin their commentary with more academic wording than what they might otherwise employ. Take a look at the example below where a student is commenting on a peer's thesis statement.

Once students select a few stems, they can continue writing additional feedback in the dialogue box. The auto-commentary gives them that scaffolded "shove" or head start that they need to start leaving feedback that is meaningful and actionable. What's more, students begin to internalize these stems and start using them on their own, even when they are not using essaypop. The idea is to build within students that metacognitive framework that not only makes them better mentors but increases their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses as writers.

Essaypop empowers students with the ability to assess others using the language of the rubric.

We typically think of the scoring rubric as a tool reserved for the teacher, but why not allow students to provide feedback for their peers (and even themselves) using the academic language of the rubric? We've made it easy for teachers to set up rubric scoring so that specific or filtered elements can be selected for scoring (a tool designed to save teachers time). Meanwhile, students are also given the ability to score using the very same rubric elements. When students assess one another in this way, they naturally begin to internalize the academic language we wish them to learn and use. Of course, student scoring is separated from teacher scoring when the metrics are gathered. The setup is very simple as seen here.

When the teacher and the students go to the Hive and select the assessment view, the elements selected by the teacher show up ready to assess. Each element is supported by a component-specific rubric that can be quickly applied to a student's writing. The metrics derived from this scoring are divided into teacher scores and student scores. With practice and when guided by the teacher, students can be taught to routinely incorporate the language of the rubric when they consider the quality of the writing of their peers and their own writing as well.

To learn more about the essaypop assessment tool, take a look at this article.

The social nature of the Hive builds engagement.

Students we interviewed told us that connecting with peers is compelling, and fun, and keeps them actively writing, even on more difficult papers, for longer periods of time. What’s more, students admit interactions are not just taking place during class, but are continuing after class and even into the evenings. Imagine, kids at night discussing Walt Whitman’s, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” when they could be checking their TikTok feed instead! And this beyond-the-classroom interaction has proven to be taking place regardless of whether the students are in traditional classroom, hybrid, or distance learning settings.

Teachers using essaypop and the Hive are reporting that increased student engagement is resulting in more completed papers, better classroom discussions, and an overall higher quality of writing. Ninth-grade ELA teacher, April Henney, from Wisconsin says, “The engagement level is infectious. This feels like what I had imagined classes would look like when I was getting my credential. They’re talking to each other the way they relate on social media, only they’re talking about literature; they’re talking about rhetoric, and they’re having fun doing it!”

Scaling the mentorship community by inviting guests into the Hive

Once you've created an environment where students are willing and able to provide substantive and rubric-based feedback for one another, you can begin to expand the mentoring beyond the small-group dynamic. Just as you can cluster students into groups, you can uncluster groups so that a whole class of students or groups of classes can interact and collaborate with one another. Let's say, for example, an ELA teacher has five seventh-grade classes and a total of 150 students who are all working on a particular essay. The teacher can set it up so that all of these students can join forces and have dynamic conversations about the writing at hand. Using the auto-commentary feature and rubric scoring, the teacher can expect to receive a lot of help in the assessment process and a lot of scoring data as well. But this is only the beginning of how dynamic the Hive can become.

The essaypop platform was set up so that teachers could invite guests into the Hive environment. Who gets to be a guest in the Hive? Anyone really. The teacher can invite other students, including older students, the librarian, administrators, trusted parents, retired volunteers, anyone. These guests join the Hive by entering a teacher-issued guest code (no one's getting in without this), and they can access the auto-commentary, and the rubrics, and leave feedback just as the teacher and the other students can. The point is to build and scale the mentor network and create a community of coaches and writers who can interact with one another regularly.

Mentorship communities provide substantial relief for teachers.

A fortuitous by-product of the social engagement that happens in the Hive has been a sort of crowdsourcing phenomenon that has significantly lightened the assessment and feedback burden for teachers, especially teachers who have taken the time to show their students how to provide substantive feedback to one another. If the teacher is the only one giving feedback to 100 or more students, kids are lucky to get a single useful comment about their writing, but if those same students are trained and empowered to give feedback to one another, then each student ends up with dozens of comments on a single paper. What we’ve learned is when teachers train their students to provide commentary and advice in a way that reinforces best practices and is informed by rubric-based criteria, they can create “volunteer armies” of mentors and coaches, recruited from their ranks.

Case Study

We recently conducted a case study at a grade seven through twelve, junior/senior high school in Los Angeles that uses essaypop for all grade levels. The school’s seventh-grade ELA team has developed a curricular map for getting their students from basic-paragraph writing, through short-form essay writing, and finally into the mastery of multiple-paragraph papers. The team wanted to bring in the school's sophomores, juniors, and seniors to assist the seventh graders.

The school is an International Baccalaureate school, and the high school students are required to log a significant amount of community service hours to satisfy their graduation requirements. One of the prescribed ways to meet this requirement is to assist younger students with their studies. The team determined that they would recruit their former students, now in high school, to assist their current seventh graders with their short-response essays. After all, who better to guide students who had already wrestled with the essays and methods when they were younger?

They reached out to the high school students via the school’s LMS, and the signups were impressive; they could attract over 100 interested students from 9th through 12th grade, and these volunteers would mentor approximately 250 seventh graders. Using the essaypop guest feature, the teachers invited these mentors into the Hive and assigned them to designated clusters that included four seventh-graders each

In a Zoom session, the mentors were given an overview of the expectations and requirements needed to earn community service credit. They were coached on how to interact with the younger students, and presented with the “do’s and don’ts”. They were advised on how often they should jump in and give feedback, and they were given reference documents that included concepts to focus on and sample phrasing to use when providing commentary. They were essentially coached to become coaches. “They were so excited to share their expertise”, noted one of the teachers on the team. We certainly didn’t expect this many mentors to sign up and for them to be this gung-ho.”

It was also explained to the mentors that their current English teachers had been informed of their community service commitment and that they would be receiving extra credit in their English classes for their efforts if they followed through. The teachers reported that this orientation session not only set clear expectations but also created a sense of camaraderie and anticipation for the task at hand. Some admitted that they were surprised by some of the kids who had signed up. One teacher explained, “There was a boy who I had in my class two years earlier who never completed a single assignment. He failed both semesters in seventh grade. So I was actually a little concerned when I saw his name on the mentor list. Of course, he turned out to be one of my best and most active coaches; the kids loved him. It’s as though he wanted to come back and prove something, and, boy, did he!”

As soon as the older students were assigned and trained, they immediately began digging into the seventh graders’ multiple-paragraph essays — a week was given for the whole endeavor. As the days passed, teachers gave frequent reminders and encouragement to the mentors through the school’s LMS, keeping them on track and on task. The seventh graders also were given frequent reminders to respond to their coaches in kind to keep the discussion lively and interactive. It should be noted that one part of the rubric assessment for the essay writers included how well the writers gave, received, and responded to feedback.

One wrinkle the team added to the mix was the implementation of an “honoring system” whereby the seventh graders were allowed to honor one classmate and one older coach who they felt were particularly helpful and consistent with their feedback. Students didn’t have to honor anyone but could do so if they felt someone deserved it. Classmates who were honored received a bump on their overall assignment grade, while coaches were rewarded with additional community service credit. It turned out to be a very motivating incentive, so much so that our product engineers are working to build this "honoring capacity" into the platform. Honoring one another — What a great way to integrate a spirit of soulful encouragement into the platform!

What we learned

Once the essays were completed and assessed, all the participants were interviewed, and the results were quite encouraging. Most of the seventh graders suggested that the mentor/mentee relationship was fun and engaging; many admitted that they went back to their essays often to see if they had any new feedback and that this usually caused them to write and revise more. When asked if they thought the coaching helped them write better papers, most agreed that it did. One young lady suggested “I thought having older students read my writing would be embarrassing, but it wasn’t. It was actually fun. I would do it again for sure”

The upperclassman mentors indicated that not only did they appreciate receiving their community service credit and extra credit in their English classes, but they truly felt that they were performing a valuable service. They seemed to take pride in their ability to help their younger peers. Many indicated that they thought the experience was fun and asked if they would like to participate again, 96% said that they would. Many also indicated that the exercise helped them reflect on their abilities as writers. According to one 10th-grade mentor, “This experience really helped me to relive my own seventh-grade experience, which seems so long ago now. It reminded me of how vulnerable I was and how inexperienced, but it also forced me to really think about some of my own tendencies as a writer. I honestly think this experience has helped me with my own writing. Another mentor put it more simply: “Man, I wish I had this kind of help when I was in seventh grade.”

The team of teachers who engaged in the study also had a lot of positive things to say about the experience. One of the biggest revelations was simply the amount of feedback that the students were receiving from each other and their coaches. “I could never give that much feedback on a single essay to over a hundred students,” said one teacher. “It would be impossible. Plus, the feedback that was being given was quite impressive. That actually surprised me a little.” Another member of the team said, “This is just a huge relief. I kill myself trying to give everybody feedback, and I still am barely able to provide the help that these kids need. Having a bunch of “mini-mes” is a really great feeling, and the coaches did such a good job.”

The teachers also agreed that more students actually finished their multiple-paragraph papers and that the overall quality of writing was much improved compared to past assignments. The whole team agreed that they would like to do this again, having learned so much from the first round. They also are in talks with the teachers from the local elementary schools, who are also using essaypop, and they’re offering to have their seventh-graders mentor the fifth and sixth graders from the feeder schools. The mentoring current travels in both directions it seems.


Now that essaypop is being used widely throughout the nation, we are gratified to learn that the Hive, the social and interactive heart of the system, is helping teachers and students as we had imagined it would. We love that students are learning to become more proficient providers of feedback and that this, in turn, is taking pressure off of teachers. And, of course, we are enthused by the discovery that essaypop is becoming a conduit for coaching and mentorship relationships all over the country. With essaypop and particularly the Hive, we believe we’ve built an educational software that saves teachers precious time, drives meaningful peer-to-peer interaction, and creates communities that create meaningful, academic outcomes that are based on compassion, selflessness, and service.

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